The team helping to feed Shropshire in lockdown

People across the UK have been affected by COVID-19 in a number of ways, but one of the biggest challenges for many has been accessing food.

Supporting vulnerable, at-risk groups, elderly and isolated people, low-income families and those who’ve seen their income drop due to coronavirus has been one of Shropshire Council’s main priorities during lockdown, and an Emergency Food Hub was set up in March to tackle the issue.

The Hub, based in Shrewsbury, is staffed by members of Shropshire Council’s Outdoor Partnership Team under the guidance of Pete Banford, who’s been overseeing the logistics of critical food box deliveries throughout the county.


Mobilising to help at-risk groups

“When the restrictions were first established, the government launched a drive to keep the most vulnerable people in shielded groups safe,” says Pete.

“With the support of supermarkets and wholesalers, food parcels began to be delivered to these at-risk groups, but due to the demand, local councils were quickly asked to get involved.

“In response, Shropshire Council set up a Coronavirus Helpline, which anyone can call for virus-related advice, including those who require an emergency food box.

“The Council’s Customer Care Team then take down a range of details, and lists of names, addresses and specific dietary requirements are then sent to us to divide into regions and deliver wherever needed.”


Working with safety in mind

On 30th March, Pete and his team made their first food box deliveries to residents who were isolated or at very high risk.

Adopting guidelines from Public Health England, Pete implemented a number of procedures to help keep customers and drivers safe, including leaving boxes on doorsteps, standing over two metres back and wiping down all touch points after each delivery.

If the list shows that a householder is showing symptoms consistent with COVID-19, then drivers wear PPE, leave the box outside and wait inside the van before wiping down all surfaces.

Pete was also concerned that if all of his staff developed symptoms, the whole operation would be compromised, so he split the service into two teams who deliver on rotation at different points in the week to minimise any risk.

“The whole purpose of this service is to keep people safe and to stop the virus from spreading,” says Pete.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that the virus doesn’t recognise any age groups or circumstances, but we also know that communities can be incredibly strong together and people are extremely grateful for any help we provide them.”


Supporting those in need

But it isn’t just elderly, isolated or vulnerable residents who are using the Emergency Food Hub.

It has also available to young families on low incomes or income support, the Council is working to reduce the effects of hardship as a result of the lockdown.

“We really want to encourage anyone who’s struggling to apply for an emergency food box,” says Pete.

“Many people are in exactly the same boat and it’s essential you get the food you need for yourself and your family. The data you provide to us is kept strictly confidential, and we deliver unmarked food boxes in white vans, so it’s completely anonymous.”

As well as supporting these groups, the Emergency Food Hub are also working with Shire Services to provide meals to homeless people who are isolating in local hotel accommodation.

Shire Services provides cooked meals for lunch, while Pete and his team deliver breakfast and evening meals. The evening meals have been developed as Kettle Packs, providing items like Pot Noodles that can be heated purely with the only available in-room appliance.


A balanced diet

“Shropshire’s a big area, and in the South West of the county we often find ourselves driving down long and bumpy tracks which means our deliveries can take longer,” says Pete.

“But we’re very well placed to do that because as part of Shropshire Council’s Outdoor Partnership Team, we’re already trained and experienced in manual handling, plus we have small vans that are ideal for deliveries and a good geographical knowledge of the area.”

A typical food box is designed to last a week and includes a balanced diet of goods.

They usually include items like potatoes, carrots, onions, apples, oranges or other citrus fruits, bread, long-life milk, tea, coffee and sugar, biscuits, tinned soup, tinned beans, tuna, shower gel, toothpaste, soap and toilet roll, as well as leaflets with information about how to re-order a box and how to stay safe during lockdown.

Before Easter, RAF Cosford kindly donated a large number of Easter eggs to the food hub, and as there are many of these left, the team are also trying to include a chocolate egg with each box. Other essential items like sanitary pads, incontinence pads, nappies and baby formula can also be provided if requested.

Unlike the government-provided food boxes, the Emergency Food Hub team can also cater to specific dietary requirements such as gluten intolerance, nut allergies or a vegetarian diet.


How the public can help

Many of the supermarkets and wholesalers who contribute produce to the food boxes do so at cost, and as lockdown continues, the team are working closely with supermarkets to secure priority delivery slots for those who can afford to shop online but are shielding, vulnerable and concerned about leaving the house.

They are also trying to link up individuals or families in need with local support from shops or neighbours.

Grocery stores are doing more to provide food to people, so there are more options for people who can afford it; the Co-op, for example is offering an ordering service over the phone.

Information about this service, and how to volunteer to help, can be found here. However, if people need food urgently and a food bank service is not available, Shropshire Council is there to help.

“One thing that would help us enormously is if anyone who’s using the service can try to contact us before lunchtime, and have a quick look in their cupboards to see how long their food will last,” says Pete.

“We sometimes get calls at 4pm on a Friday afternoon from people who have already run out of food, and that tends to mean our team end up working until 9 or 10pm on a Friday night to get urgent deliveries out.”

“We’ll keep on going until demand or need drops, or until alternative provisions are made. It’s a whole-council approach and we’re happy to be able to help in whatever way we can.”

If you or someone you know requires an Emergency Food Box, please call Shropshire Council’s Coronavirus Helpline on 0345 678 9028 or click here for more information.